This is a transcription of a live fundraiser event for Black liberation organised and hosted by Silver Press on 9 June 2020. ‘Revolution is not a one-time event’ will return as a month-long programme in August, organised by Che Gossett, Lola Olufemi and Sarah Shin.
It’s incredibly exciting to be here, and it’s an honour to be chairing this panel with this amazing group of scholars and activists. My name is Akwugo Emejulu, and I’m a professor of sociology at the University of Warwick. Before I introduce the panel, I just want to give you a little bit of background as to why we’re here and what we’re hoping to achieve for this event. As many of you know, this is the day of George Floyd’s funeral in Houston, Texas. In fact, I think it’s actually happening right now. So I would like to dedicate this session to George Floyd, to Breonna Taylor, to Atatiana Jefferson, to Sarah Reed, to Sheku Bayoh, to Adama Traore, and all the other countless victims of police violence. I think it’s important that we start with that, and say their names.
And so before I hand over to this amazing panel, I just want to say a couple of things about my hopes for this discussion. I hope that we can be brave, that we can be courageous, that we allow ourselves to think expansively about this idea of abolition, and what freedom looks like, and what care and caretaking and care work looks like. I hope that we allow ourselves to have our imaginations run wild, and that we really engage in this speculative dialogue about what a future would look like without police and prisons. This is a really amazing opportunity to do this. And abolition feminism gives us the framework, the tools and the opportunity for us to desire more and better for ourselves. But I think what’s also important to understand — and that’s why we have this great range of both thinkers and activists here — is that while I hope that we are utopian, we also need to be grounded in a practical politics. So what can we do? What can we achieve? Because lives are literally at stake in this moment. And so part of what we’re going to try to achieve here today is work hard to figure out how we translate these ideas into action, in order to dismantle the logics and the systems that do harm and violence to black and brown people. And naming that harm, and imagining otherwise, and taking collective action, is the expression of radical caretaking and the foundation of abolition, and it’s really exciting to be talking with you guys today about this.
And finally, one last thing, is that protest works. And I think it’s always important to understand this: that protest works. We literally would not be sitting here in this moment if folks did not disrupt the everyday social order and take to the streets, literally all over the world. And I think it’s important for us to take that seriously, but also to understand that these protests did not happen spontaneously. These protests are a product of tireless organising, unsexy, not fun — everyone wants to carry a banner, but no one wants to do that 7 p.m. on a Wednesday night organising. The protests you see on the street are about hard-won organising victories to get those people on the streets that stretch back to the first generation of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. But also, of course, even further than that, to the abolitionists of the sixties and seventies. And so if nothing else, what we need to take from this moment is to understand that protests work. But also that social change takes a very long time. Fifty years to get to this moment. And I think the lesson is that we are absolutely allowed to be discouraged and dispirited, but we have to keep our eyes on the prize. And that’s the balancing act.
So with that said, let me introduce this amazing group. First off, we have Che Gossett, a PhD candidate at Rutgers University and the 2019-20 Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies in the Whitney Independent Study Program. Their work is at the nexus of black studies, aesthetics and politics, queer theory and trans studies. Ru Kaur organises against state violence and occasionally writes about abolition, race and gender. She is based in London. Lola Olufemi is a black feminist writer and organiser from London. She facilitates workshops on feminism and histories of political organising in schools, universities and local communities. Amrit Wilson, goddess, groundbreaker… Sorry, I apologise. Amrit Wilson is a writer and activist on issues of race and gender in Britain and South Asian politics. She’s a founder member of South Asia Solidarity Group and the Freedom Without Fear platform, and a board member of Imkaan, a Black, South Asian and minority ethnic women’s organisation dedicated to combating violence against women in Britain. She was a founding member of Awaz and an active member of OWAAD.
I’m going to start with the first question. Understanding that we will be assessing the pandemic and this rebellion for years to come, Che, how do you make sense of what’s happening now?
That’s a question that’s really been on my mind. And I’m often on social media, so it can be this influx and flow and almost like a wave of everyday resistance, but also just a feed of information that can feel kind of disorienting — a loss of conceptual coordinates amidst an onslaught of emotions in response to trauma and violence. And so one of the ways in which I’m able to feel like I have a ground is to think about the critical and political geology of the time that we’re in. And to think about how, as you said, abolition provides us with a paradigm for analysing this crisis, so that we see it not as one that we are unprepared for, but one that we’ve been actually in a long history of working against. And that is a crisis of racial, carceral state capitalism. A crisis of police violence, a crisis of this iteration of anti-blackness. And it’s also a moment where we’re facing on the one hand Covid-19, and on the other hand this kind of episodic anti-blackness of the police. And so thinking about this double bind of medical racism, anti-blackness as a pre-existing condition for Covid-19 on the one hand, and on the other hand facing police violence that is also everyday anti-blackness. And so, to me, I think I see abolition feminism as a form of study and a form of struggle. And the interplay between those two is where we’re able both to understand what is happening, and also be involved in changing it in a really materialist way.
That’s great. Thank you so much. Ru, tell us, what do you make of this moment that we’re in?
Firstly, just to underwrite everything that Che just said. Right now, I guess what we’re seeing is something that’s kind of a reconfiguration of violence and what we consider to be acceptable violence and defining what violence we don’t accept. So obviously, the violence of the state, and certainly in the UK and elsewhere where we have statues of slave-owners that loom over people with family histories of being enslaved and colonised; the violence of the police; the violence of the pandemic that affects the racialised global working class. There’s been a lot of us that have not accepted this violence. But it seems that there’s a moment now where that is building traction, and there’s a mass movement for understanding that insurrectional violence and resisting state violence through whatever means necessary is not only acceptable, but necessary. So I think that’s felt really powerful to me at the moment: trying to push back against the violence that kills and maims, either immediately or very slowly, over many years, as the state does to a lot of us. And the pandemic has helped to uncover that more people are unwilling to accept it.
That’s great. Thank you. Lola, what do you make of this moment?
Yeah, just to follow on from what everyone else has said, I think I’m trying to understand this moment by not thinking of it as a singular moment of disaster but as a continuation of a state of emergency. And when we think about and reframe it in that way, it becomes easier to resist liberal attempts to contain it. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to not add to the chorus of condemnation of violence against the state, violence against the police, etc. Because we know how powerful, even discursively, that condemnation is in kind of shrinking our imagination, and shrinking what we think is possible.
I’ve also been trying to think through this idea of not being surprised by the scale of the terror, and in many ways trying to see this repetition of black death that we see over and over again, across borders and in a number of contexts and continents, as constitutive of the state, constitutive of how the world is organised now. And for me, obviously it invokes despair, but it doesn’t invoke a despair that is immobilising. Because I feel like you skip out a whole thing when you realise that, okay, this is how policing operates. This is how the state operates. And so we have to do that thing that Audre Lorde says in her essay ‘Learning from the 60s’, of finding our work and doing it and committing ourselves to doing it. Lastly, I’ll say that another way of making sense of this moment for me has been loosening attachments, or watching other people loosen their attachments, to property and their attachments to the artefacts of racial constructs. And we’re seeing people who I guess would call themselves liberal, who would think that that was a good thing, moving straight towards abolition, being propelled in that direction by what’s happening. And so I see lots of potential there, lots of potential for generative conversation and for action.
Amrit, what are we meant to make of this moment?
Just to follow on from what everyone has said, it is a moment when the kind of injustice and violence which was always inherent to the system has become more acute because of Covid-19, and more apparent. And so people who were finding it very hard to tolerate are saying no, that’s enough. And so it’s the beginning, in a sense, of something. The point is, how do we continue? How do we go forward? How do we see this not just as one event? Because of course it isn’t. But another thing I’d like to say is that it has also made us very acutely aware that life is precious, and that different lives are seen as of more and less value. And I think that is so important, because it’s so central to the whole concept of global capitalism. And so I think that also feeds right into abolition feminism, and we can use it to explore that further.
Amrit, how do you define abolition feminism, and how did you come to this movement?
Well, abolition feminism is a very big subject, and I don’t want to go into deeper, more academic discussions of it. But what I’d like to say is that the ideas of it have been with us for a very long time. I mean, if we look at what we were doing in the seventies that’s really interesting, because the seventies had a lot in common with this period. I mean, at least in Britain, the whole of the authoritarian state was being constructed at that point: police powers, immigration legislation, anti-terrorism legislation, and all of that. And at that point, we had come from the colonies, we were much closer to colonialism, and we knew that reform was not the answer. We knew that things had to just go out of the window and be gone.
How I came to it… Well, because I’m so much older than anybody else here, I could go on and on about it, but one of the key experiences was this. In the seventies, I was a journalist, and I was looking at immigration controls. And one day someone rang me and said, Look, my cousin has been held up and she’s in Harmondsworth, at Heathrow. Can you go and see her, because it seems like she has been put in a prison. So I went down, and that of course meant I uncovered the first detention centre in this country, which is in Harmondsworth. And what I found was the most horrific violence against women, the so-called virginity tests, which were really serious sexual abuse, and extremely patriarchal. And that led to several big protests by Awaz, which is the Asian women’s activist group I was involved with, and then later we had a sit-in with the OWAAD sisters, and eventually the virginity tests were stopped. Awaz was demanding an end to immigration controls — in other words, ‘no borders’. So even back then, although we didn’t use the term abolition feminism, we were using some similar ideas.The question of immigration detention is still with us. And what is, I think, rather worrying, and which we need to perhaps think about more, is that it is now being taken over by corporates. It’s not just run by the state; it’s actually also run by corporates. And so we have Serco which is involved in private prisons and in detention centres, we have G47, which runs prisons in Israel and was implicated in the killing of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan refugee who was forcibly deported. So these are the monsters who we have to now confront.
The historians say, history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes. And so it’s exactly right to pull that moment in the seventies into the now. Lola, how do you define abolition feminism, and how did you come to this movement?
Generally, the way that I’ve come to define feminism or the way that I’ve come to approach it is as a political methodology that we can use to think about our freedoms and the freedoms of others. I think of abolition feminism as a call to the imagination. I think of it as this framework that asks us to think about the conditions that make the designation ‘criminal’ possible, and to think about how we might transform those conditions so the idea of crime, the idea of the criminal, no longer exists. And I think of abolition feminism as one of the few, or one of the only, frames that refuses to treat violence as if it were inevitable. Refusing to treat violence as if it can only be kind of approached after the fact, instead of thinking about what makes the condition of violence possible.
I came to thinking about it especially through the lens of speculative thinking or the imagination. I’m thinking specifically about black feminist genealogies from across the world. So thinking about the work of Angela Davis, Gina Dent, INCITE!, thinking about the work of OWAAD and their campaigns against police brutality in the UK, the Brixton Black Women’s Group, I think of abolition feminism also as a principle that asks us not to reproduce the harm that we seek to end. And I think it asks us to give up this idea of deservingness, give up this idea that some people deserve to have a claim to a liveable life, have a claim to a family, a safe place to be, care, and others deserve to be disappeared by the state. And because of that, I think it asks us to really question everything we already think we know about ‘justice’ and the ‘justice system’. And that can be incredibly overwhelming, but I think that that’s the only way that we can think towards a freedom that involves all of us. And I think that one of the central pillars of that kind of feminism that is invested in alleviating suffering is that nobody gets left behind. Nobody deserves to be sacrificed on the altar of an election, or on the altar of ‘serious crime’, or on the altar of violence; we have to think about a way that we can move forward that includes everyone.
That’s great. I’m trying to see a pattern here in terms of what abolition feminism is, in terms of really thinking about the particular configurations of the state, and how those configurations are made possible by constructing crime and criminals in very particular ways. So we’ll move on to Ru now: Ru, how do you define abolition feminism? How did you come to the movement?
I understand abolition feminism as certainly an analysis of the things that are happening around us, but also predicating that analysis on a deep sense of grappling with an understanding that the state isn’t going to save us. And reconfiguring everything about the world around us so that we end carceral logic and stop reproducing structural violence enacted against the powerless. As well as being informed by a lot of Black and global south feminists, I’m also thinking about people like Cedric Robinson, who obviously spoke about racial capitalism, but also wrote about order and how it’s created in the West. And there’s this kind of fantasy of what this means – a naturalisation of order, and how the terms of that are set by white people with power. And also thinking about categories of citizenship and the human, and who’s excluded from those by design.
In terms of how I got into abolition: first of all, I grew up a working-class child of migrants in the centre of empire. So that helped to sharpen my analysis of the state and policing. I also worked in violence against women services for a number of years. It’s funny because very often the refrain around abolition is, well, how does it deal with sexual violence? But I can tell you from working in these spaces that carceral solutions don’t resolve sexual violence or domestic violence. So seeing up close how these systems work, how they criminalise and pathologise not only certain perpetrators, but the survivors of violence; how they treat certain communities, working-class, migrant and POC communities, as inherently criminalised, inherently misogynist and inherently unable to be civilised. And what does civility mean in this context? And also seeing how the police don’t protect survivors. Within the women’s sector there’s unfortunately a lot of suspect politics around inclusion of trans people, sex workers: again, deep pathologisation of people of colour and migrant people. Discovering feminism and realising that the analysis of mainstream feminism didn’t match up with my life, or the lives of women around me also helped me to think beyond this framework and explore abolitionist feminism.
That’s great. And I think this is really important. Amrit and Lola discussed this, but it’s really sharpening our focus on racial capitalism and understanding how that creates a particular social order, but also creates a particular expression of the human: who gets to be human, who is outside the boundaries of humanity, and what that means in terms of the kinds of violence that is allowed to be visited upon certain groups. So Che, please tell us about your understanding of abolition feminism and how you came to the movement.
I’m thinking about the political and theoretical coordinates for me of abolition feminism. I think of the indispensable and incredible influence that so many Black feminist thinkers have had on my life, and shaped our understanding of abolition feminism. I think of Black feminism as abolition feminism, from the work of Ida B. Wells to Harriet Jacobs, the Combahee River Collective, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Marsha P. Johnson, Saidiya Hartman. And so I think one of the really powerful contributions of abolition feminism is to interrogate some of the violences of feminism itself, or, I should say, the violences of the gender binary itself. So thinking about the work of Hortense Spillers, where she writes about ungendering, and also about black trans activism that has really contributed and been a part of abolition feminism, in terms of thinking about the heteropatriarchy, anti-trans as anti-black violence, and creating communities and interstitial spaces of care. Like the work of Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective that I mentioned. And so both giving us a way to understand the violence, the racialised violence of patriarchy, and also building alternatives that don’t rely on those formations. Lola was talking about sacrifice at the altar of electoral politics, liberalism, racial patriarchy — abolition feminism is trying to make other spaces of life.
That’s really great. And you highlight incredibly well the importance of thinking about how all regular vanilla feminism is also part of the problem, and cannot be separated from the structures of the violence that all of you guys have been talking about. I want to shift to talking a little bit about some of the critiques embedded in the way that you guys are defining abolition feminism, because I’m hoping we can drill down a wee bit more to talk about how, using a frame of abolition feminism, should we rethink the idea of what harm is, but also what justice is, and what accountability is?
Picking up this thread of what I was just talking about with regard to women’s services and thinking about the professionalisation of services that respond to violence against women, and in the UK the genealogy — certainly Amrit can speak to this — where women’s groups that set up as squats, very much embedded within a community, became corporatised within neoliberalism, and started to engage with state logics around what is acceptable violence. So the violence of the immigration system is an acceptable form of violence, whereas the violence of poverty forcing you to commit crime is not acceptable violence. The politics became muted and shaped by the interactions that these organisations had with the state, and that was controlled by money. So particular crimes that are considered to be overwhelmingly perpetrated by ethnic minority communities, so-called honour-based violence, and how these are mediated through a racist state lens.
So how do we rethink this? Firstly, in terms of rethinking harm, and divesting from these systems, not only around funding. Lola cited INCITE!, who are based in the US, but have certainly been formative for a transformative approach for me and my peers that have worked in VAWG services, and thinking about how we move away from certain funding models and the compromises that they come with. But also thinking about particular surveillance technologies used through the lens of addressing violence against women. So there are particular state-led models of surveilling survivors and controlling their interactions with the state and with people around them, leading to them being threatened with losing their children if they can’t leave an abusive situation, or being criminalised themselves. And these sort of models have actually been exported internationally — stuff like Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference models. Being able to move away from this, it’s useful to remember that the state is not our saviour. And the work that INCITE!, Amrit and others have done over the years has really helped to shape that, and to create ways to actively divest from those systems.
In my spare time I also have coordinated accountability processes with people who have perpetrated harm. And that process is really difficult: it’s really difficult for us to imagine, what does reimagining justice look like? Is justice even a useful concept for us to be drawing from? Or is there some other language and another framework that we can be thinking about? And thinking about the point that was made earlier around people not being disposable, how do we grapple with that when someone continues to commit harm against other people? There are real difficulties that arise in running an accountability process, and it is often a long, drawn-out and exhausting process. And I know a lot of people who have been involved in them who have felt they often don’t work. So how do we continue to build on these tools? The one thing I do want to highlight, when we’re talking about these models within the framework of abolition, is that obviously, none of us has a perfect model for it. Obviously, we need to imagine what transformative justice looks like. But actually, we’re still going to get it wrong when we try and reimagine it. How do we make sure that we learn from those lessons and keep at it? Because it’s not going to come easily.
I also want to add that what I’ve found to be a helpful way of framing harm and accountability and justice within an abolitionist framework also relates to the relationships that we have with ourselves, as well as with other people. So when are the times that you breach your own boundaries, when are the times that you’re not forgiving of yourself? When are the times that you are self-critical and judgmental? This is stuff that we do every day! These ways of being with ourselves and others take a long time to divest from, because they’re everywhere. So just to finish on that point — it’s not just about changing our relationships with each other, but actually the relationships we have with ourselves. And it’s not going to come easily, but that doesn’t mean that we give up because things just can’t remain how they are.
That’s really helpful. Thank you so much. So in many ways, what you’re saying is it’s part of this process that abolition feminism gives us that we start to reframe this idea of violence, of acceptable and unacceptable violence, who’s allowed to be violent, who gets to answer for their violence and who doesn’t. But also I like this idea of divesting. Of course, especially those who are in the US will know there’s this whole debate about defunding the police, and we’re going to go on to talk about that in a minute. But I do think that you raise a really important point about this idea of literal divestment of funding, but also divesting in ways of being, which I think is really interesting and important. Amrit, can I bring you in here? How does abolition help us rethink ideas of harm, accountability, justice?
One of the things before we even begin to think about how you define harm is that part of neoliberal discourse is to blame those who face violence. And we’re seeing it of course, now, with Covid-19. I mean that in Britain, ethnic minority people are supposedly to blame for getting ill, you know, it’s our families, it’s something about our bodies, etc, etc. So we need to place harm within that whole framework, or to realise that this discourse exists and it’s very powerful, otherwise we also end up blaming ourselves. But I think we need to, on another level, begin to redefine harm. We need to realise that it’s both things like intimate partner violence, and also much broader acts of violence. Like, for example, the Iraq War. This was an act of violence which affected millions of people. Or what we’re seeing in India now. In India, there’s ethnic cleansing — basically, a genocide is being planned of the whole of the Muslim population by a fascist, Hindu state. So what’s happening there is violence and harm on a vast scale. So we need to find ways of looking at how we deal with that kind of violence through the lens of abolition feminism. And in a sense, you know, we cannot do that without really looking at capitalism in a lot of depth.
I think on the question of accountability there should at least be accountability to a collective of those who have suffered harm. Because otherwise we will end up wasting our time, looking at the state. And this has happened over and over again. We see it particularly in Britain and the Violence Against Women movement, which in its early beginnings was quite radical, but has now engaged with the state to an extent that it’s very hard for them to disentangle themselves from it.
Thank you so much. Lola, can I bring you in here, please?
I think this is a really tough but necessary question. And I think starting with thinking about how we think about justice now is really important. If justice is conviction — in the case of police violence, for example, if justice is mainly conviction, and arrest of officers, then we create, as Jackie Wang says, a politics that requires somebody to be dead first. And so I think we have to really think about what justice currently means, and what a justice that’s predicated on life instead of death could look like. I think one of the ways that we begin to think about and rethink harm and accountability and justice is to, as Ru said, denaturalise acceptable violence. So to begin to name the violences that situate us in specific places, and mean that we, that individuals, are forced to commit what is then framed as violence or crime by the state. And in the process we also have to think about who gets to construct themselves as a victim in the first place. So how law and legality frame who is able to claim, using the language of the law, that they are a victim, and then to examine the communities who have never relied on policing, prison and any of the state mechanisms to redress harm: how have they been able to do that? And I think one of the ways that they’ve been able to do that, and one of the ways that accountability morphs in that sense, is to think about it in line with its context, so to understand that accountability processes will look different for everyone, everywhere.
I think especially in the case of sexual violence, I think what the carceral system sells us is this lie that there is one process, one linear process, with a beginning and end, that everybody can go through and justice is served. But when we start to think of accountability as contextual, we can craft processes that specifically speak to the suffering of whole communities, and speak to the suffering of individuals. And like Ru said, those accountability processes are long and hard. But I’ve seen them work. I’ve seen what happens when we divest from carceral solutions to these problems. I was thinking about this Gwendolyn Brooks quote from her poem about Paul Robeson, where she says, We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond. And I think that rethinking accountability requires us first to recognise that our lives are fundamentally relational, right? Some people live only because other people can die. And do we wish to be the recipients of a kind of protection that is premised on somebody else’s death? And once we break with that frame and idea, we get some sense that we might be able to think about harm through a lens of care, and think about getting rid of these doctrines of eligibility, these doctrines of ‘the money that I have is the money that somebody else shouldn’t have’, and to think about the whole idea that nobody should qualify for aid, right, that we have enough resources so that everyone could live and flourish, currently. And what’s stopping us from doing that is the way that structures organise us so that we are siphoned off, so that we are isolated, so that we are disconnected from each other. And so these overarching and prevailing systems of violence are able to continue suffering, when we have the mechanisms currently to end it.
Fantastic, you took us to church. I really like this idea of this audacious politics of life. I think this gets to the heart of the abolition feminist project. I think it’s excellent. Che, please tell us?
Just to echo what everyone else has said, abolition feminism transforms the very meaning of justice itself. And we are conscripted into a carceral version of safety and a carceral version of justice that is part of the social contract and part of social life. And it does this insidious thing where we are kind of led to believe that we need police to solve harm. I think, for me, it was really the organisation Critical Resistance that punctured and shattered that misconception and helped to show and make transparent that the state, the military and the police are actually the greatest sources of harm, especially in terms of sexual violence. And the way that, for instance, the prison industrial complex actually uses the idea of safety to extend its own territory and its own capacity. So in terms of the prison industrial complex so-called ‘solving’ sexual violence, that looks like the sex offender registry, and these other formations, that actually become laboratories for sexual violence themselves — civil confinement, castration etc. So instead of displacing accountability onto the state that isn’t accountable at all, it’s asking ourselves this really deep and perennial question about what are the ways that harm is happening at both the structural and interpersonal level? And then how can we intervene? And how is harm and violence also happening within our ways of being with each other? And how can we undo that?
I think there’s some incredible models from Combahee River Collective organising in the seventies in Boston. I grew up in Roxbury during Reagan’s regime, which is one of the Black poor communities (at that time, pre-gentrification of the neighbourhood of Mission Hill where I grew up) where they were organising, in Dorchester too. In 1977, they made their amazing statement. I don’t want to get sidetracked, but there’s so much to say about that statement, and about how powerful it is and how it radicalises feminism. They created a series of pamphlets, in the face of murder of twelve black women, that included material on self defence, ways of protecting each other, and ways to combat this type of violence that didn’t hinge on a kind of politics of rescue, but rather a kind of nurturing self-sufficiency. Also, something like the work of the Audre Lorde Project here in New York City, which has a long history of working to create what they call ‘safe outside the system’. So, we don’t need the system to be safe. This was an experimental modality, and like Lola was saying, this is contextual. And what these models are, we’re constantly reconfiguring. How do we intervene in violence, not only in the moment, but also preventatively? That’s part of the project of abolition. Ruth Wilson Gilmore says it’s not absence, it’s presence. So preventing the problem that ends in the state solution and state thought of prison, that ends in violence, and then also intervening in the moment. And then, finally, accountability. It gives us a kind of continuum of ways to deal with violence, as opposed to this binary: good/bad people. And all this is part of an ethic, an abolitionist ethics of care. Saidiya Hartman says care is the antidote to violence. And I think that that is really a huge crystallisation of an ethic of abolition feminism. I’m also thinking about Black trans activism in this moment, having gone to the trans march in Brooklyn and about how Black trans women and femmes are fighting sex work criminalisation, the ‘walking while trans ban’ in NYC and also for housing and re-entry services and on the frontlines of the struggle.
Fantastic. We might not have got a precise definition, but we have key principles here. We have a principle about abolition feminism, about a politics of life, and thinking about who gets consigned to literal death, or a death at the hands of the state but also at the hands of capitalism, and also other citizens and non-citizens, which I think is interesting and important. I love this idea of undoing structural harm, but also interpersonal harm. So it’s thinking about harm at different levels, and also harm as a social relation, and saying, How can we create or reconfigure different ways of being and nurturing ways which are kinds of radical caretaking? I love it. All right, we need to talk about practicalities. Lola, tell us, practically speaking, what does a world without police and prisons look like?
This might be a bit counterintuitive, but I heard Mariame Kaba say that it’s okay not to have this prescriptive list of what it will look like, right, because we have to collectively build it together. And at any given time, there are so many things sitting on our imaginations, which make it kind of impossible to see through what we have now. But I think, in the UK, there are demands we could be making towards defunding the Met police. I think that that is a concrete demand that we could make. And that means simply take money away from the police, and in some cases, redirect those funds, in other places, disarm the police. I think in the UK it also looks like the end of the secure school, which is basically a prison for young offenders kind of re-presented as a school. It looks like demanding an end to the blanket enforcement of Section 60, which is something that police use as a kind of data-gathering and surveillance tool in big crowds. I think also, practically speaking, it means making things free at the point of use. So what would the world look like if we knew that there were medical services that we could rely on? Knowing that we didn’t have to pay for them, or knowing that they had already been well-funded enough that they were not in a state of crisis? What would this moment look like if we had a robust health care system that valued human life in this country?
I think it also looks like community solutions to problems. So especially with the problem of sexual violence, that is often constructed as women are at risk from people who will assault them on the street, or whatever. But we know that in the case of sexual violence, people are most likely to experience sexual violence from people that they know. Personally I think that we have much more agency than outside state bodies to disrupt cycles of violence in our own homes. And so I think a lot of what a world without police and prisons looks like is forging community where we are. And so it’s asking questions about how we hold each other accountable, how we are socialised, how we disrupt patterns of violent behaviour when we see them. I think it also asks us to consider how we would redress crime, if we were victims? It means hesitating before we call the police on somebody who could be helped in another way. It means learning de-escalation, right now, so that we can intervene in ways that keep each other safe. It means knowing how the police and the state operate, so we’re able to point out what is right and what is wrong, even though we know police aren’t, you know, apt to respect people’s rights. And I think in a way abolition is always an ongoing project, because it cannot happen absent of abolishing capitalism, abolishing racial hierarchy, abolishing all these structures of violence. So there are demands that we can make in the short term. And now I think we have in the UK especially good examples of what those demands look like. For example, when Sisters Uncut occupied Holloway Prison in 2017, the visitor centre. They showed, through a community festival that they put on in a community space where everybody was able to come in, have free food, have free access to resources, they showed what we could potentially have outside of policing in prisons, and in their continued work in terms of trying to ensure that the land in Holloway is used for public good, and a women’s building is established,I think they’re also showing us that a world without policing and prisons means, first and foremost, fortifying our structures of care to make sure, as Che said, that we prevent what becomes constructed as crime from happening in the first place.
Amrit, what does the world without police and prisons look like to you?
As Lola said, unless we dismantle capitalism or take on that struggle, we cannot fully define how the world will look, the ideal world. In fact, it’s the struggle itself which will help us to determine that. I’ll just give a couple of examples. One, for policymakers, in the context of violence against women and girls in the UK: Over the last ten years, with the intensification of neoliberal policies we’ve seen a real change in the way in which the state is handling the question of violence against women and girls. It has moved from what was essentially a preventative approach to a highly punitive approach, where not only are the perpetrators thrown in prison, but even the women who bring the cases are very likely to go to prison themselves. And, of course, there’s the whole question of deportations for migrant women which locks into this. This needs to be totally changed. It brings with it a complete removal of women’s agency. They all get together, teachers, social workers, anybody who can give information about the woman, based on surveillance systems. But when they do this, the woman is not present, she cannot speak for herself, which is just incredible if you think of it from the outside. So, obviously, we need to change that. We need to have a system where women are strengthened, where women can speak for themselves, where there is prevention rather than a carceral approach. Where the whole neoliberal framework which claims to deal with violence against women and girls but is racist and misogynistic in every way is dismantled.
I also want to give another example for activists, and I do feel that when we pick our examples, it’s useful to look at the global south as well. Because, you know, although we’re talking about Europe mainly here, I think that if you’re talking about global capitalism it is really important to talk about the global south. I want to give the example of the way in which Muslim women have been organising in India from December till the lockdown in March after which the state basically attacked them — but they are coming back! What they did was they had sit-ins, massive sit-ins, starting with a place called Shaheen Bagh in Delhi and spreading to a number of other cities, taking over whole areas, where they said they would sit until the government came and talked to them, until the citizenship laws are abolished. And these are the laws which I was telling you about which are likely to lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Now, what was really interesting to see, when these spaces were occupied was what grew up around them. There were educational classes for kids. There was political education, there was amazing artwork. There was food being served to everyone who came. There were history lessons, amazing sculptures. So all of this is something which is not only very inspiring, but possibly a blueprint and something which we should be learning from.
Thank you so much. Ru, tell us.
Someone mentioned Mariame Kaba. She’s been really instructive in informing how I think about abolition, but also how I translate that work to a UK context. A phrase I find really helpful of hers is thinking about abolition as a horizon. I think the thing I found really interesting is that some of us have been talking about this stuff for a long time, but for people that are just coming into it, it’s like… you just get rid of the police like that?! And actually there’s a lot of steps to get to that point. It’s chipping away at the power of that system and completely reconfiguring how society understands the need for police. You’re simultaneously dealing with the causes of so-called criminality, so you no longer have a need for the police any more. So a horizon of abolition is one phrase that I find really helpful when I think about that. And I think it was Lola who said we don’t have a model for what this looks like. But we do have ways of imagining care.
Just again to draw from Mariame Kaba — I feel like I should pay her for the amount I cite her regularly — one thing I’ve seen people grappling with at the moment, and maybe not yet understanding, is when we talk about reform, are we talking about reforms that lead to abolition, or reforms that just lead to more reform? So in a UK context, we can think about body-worn cameras for police officers, which is something that many anti-racist activists have called for over the years. But we’ve had a number of examples of people that have died in police custody where the police officers were wearing cameras, and either the video footage conveniently disappeared, or they didn’t have the camera turned on, or it was obscured. There’s so many ways in which the image is still controlled and not a tool for accountability, because it’s in the hands of the state. So when we’re talking about accountability, we need to think about who still fundamentally has the power in that relation. And are we still offering resources and money to the police to carry out functions for supposed accountability? What we’ve been able to accelerate over the last week is a vision of defunding the police and maybe we won’t need to take the smaller steps to get there, like civilian panels where people can control hiring and firing police officers, or thinking about what community scrutiny of police looks like. It’s really amazing that we can potentially get to that point much quicker. Just grounding it in a UK context again, I think a lot of this still seems very out of reach for people. But I just want to remind people that London’s police force, the Met, one of the first police forces in the country, was only brought together in the mid-nineteenth century. So they’re a pretty new kind of configuration in the history of the world, where people existed without this structure for a long time. We have long work ahead in terms of how we challenge the societal policing logic that props up state structures, but it’s not insurmountable by any means.
Obviously we’re not just talking about a world without police. We’re also thinking about the state and the systems of thinking that create carceral models, that justify carceral models, and the ways that we’re conditioned within society to take these as a given. And it’s drawing upon things we’ve already discussed around abolishing the structures of punishment, incarceration, poverty, racism, gender-based violence, that these things are so often taken as a given. So it’s also about changing the ways in which those systems are enacted. And we’re not just talking about abolishing the police or distributing resources to communities, but transformatively undoing the systems of logic that make prison, or the immigration system, or police legible. We want to render them completely illegible. And just to finish, I wanted to say that when we’re talking about reconfiguring how we live right now and doing that in an abolitionist framework, it’s already happening in some places. We do that already. Mutual aid, care, disrupting nuclear families and developing new ways of understanding what a family is. There are weekend schools in London that are teaching children about the history of colonialism, things that they’re not going to learn on the school curriculum. It’s usually working-class communities that already are working through abolitionist versions of care and what that looks like. And obviously we must honour those legacies in our own work of reimagining.
Fantastic. I think that’s incredibly helpful to think about. Mariame Kaba is just incredible. She’s @prisonculture on Twitter, and it’s really good to go to her website.
I just wanted to say that when we’re talking about Britain, one of the key demands, which may be possibly seen as reformist to start with, but is really important to give us the freedom to act, is to abolish the hostile environment policies, which really tie up the police, immigration, borders, and even things like homelessness. This is in a way what holds the whole structure together, and it really needs to go.
I think that’s incredibly helpful in thinking about the security and carceral state, and how that limits our possibilities of thinking about collective ideas of welfare and care. Che, please, can you bring us on home? And then I’m going to summarise, and then we’re going to get to some of these questions.
Thinking about what the world would look like with abolition requires the abolition of the world. And that’s something that, on the one hand, requires new cognitive mappings about our relationship to the earth and the very constitutive terms by which we think of ourselves as individuated selves — a deconstruction of the notion of self possession and its fiction of non-dependence — and also what Sylvia Wynter articulates as the genre of the human. So it’s really unlearning the very terms through which we relate to each other, forms of carceral subjectivity and the naturalisation of a carceral society. To undo prisons requires the undoing of racial capitalism, the undoing of borders, and it’s a perennial, intergenerational struggle and an immanent one.
I’m also thinking about the movements to defund police that are happening here. I think there was a moment of crisis of the political legitimacy and authority of the prison system that was happening first around mass incarceration: this idea that mass incarceration represents such a crisis that there needs to be a bipartisan solution to the problem, and the liberal reaction to this crisis was to make small concessions that actually reproduce the racial logics of the prison system itself. So, let’s let out the most innocent people, decriminalise things that are seen as the most safe. So the carceral grammar of justice and safety stay intact. And now we have this moment where abolition is part of a public discourse in this way, and so too is defunding. And I think that we’re seeing politicians try and deradicalise, neutralise and evacuate abolition of its force by taking something like defunding or even abolition and twisting it and repackaging it, a remixed carceral state and the cops. This happened recently where the NYPD ‘disbanded’ plainclothes police, only to re-insert them into other divisions including community policing. Another example would be Camden New Jersey’s policing being disbanding and repurposed as community policing. So I think that’s something that is a struggle right now.
Ru was asking how do we make these reforms that are kind of uncompromising and uncapturable? Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s indispensable work on ‘non-reformist reforms’ and also in her essay ‘Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence’ in Futures of Black Radicalism and the essay ‘Building an Abolitionist Movement with Everything We’ve Got’ by Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade in Captive Genders are crucial for strategy and analysis of reform versus abolitionist transformation. I appreciate how the abolitionist demand for defunding the police in the US has made public and signalled how many cities and counties go into debt and the process by which they take out bonds to pay settlements for the violence of police, and the bonds are issued by, like, Wells Fargo, and other banks and firms that already profited, as we know, off subprime mortgages and the financial crisis of 2008. So it’s like racial capitalism coming full circle. So on the one hand, it’s people being terrorised and arrested and killed by the cops, and on the other hand banks and firms profiting off that violence. Defund as one strategy of abolition means the redistribution of these resources devoted to anti-black domestic warfare of the police and prisons.
Fantastic. Thank you so much. So in summary, there’s a question here about how to think about abolition without compromising — this idea of uncapturable reforms. This is interesting. For me, as someone who studies social movements, one kind of wants to be institutionalised, because you’re not just on the street for no reason, you’re on the street in order to influence policymakers. Yes, let’s abolish the state, but my point is always, in the meantime what happens? I think it’s something to bear in mind, thinking about this idea of uncapturable reforms, and non-reformist reforms, in terms of the practical everyday. I love this idea of thinking about systems, thinking about and rethinking the way that we reproduce ourselves, the carceral models and punitive logic that we apply to ourselves, that we apply to each other, and how we give and how we consent to this logic as we interact with institutions. And I think if we’re thinking about abolition feminism, undergirded by care, this idea of reciprocity, horizontality is really important.
I just wanted to shine a light on CAPE (Community Action Against Prison Expansion) who are doing work against prison expansion, because I think that that’s another uncapturable reform, the idea that we don’t need another new prison in this country. I really ask people to look up their work against the prison estate transformation project, which is looking at creating new prisons in Wigan and Rochester.
How do you respond to the securitisation of everything? There are a number of questions about schools, of course, about the charity sector, both here and abroad, about psychological services, as well. So, how do we respond to the securitisation of everything?
Just to be brief, the most dangerous part of the whole system of securitisation is the involvement of corporates. So how do we confront that? We really need to think about imperialism, for want of a better word. Because this is a global issue. And we need to tackle those corporates, in solidarity with others. It is being done, up to a point. Some of the mining corporates, for example, are being targeted by people on the ground in different countries who are experiencing their violence. But the corporates involved in security have not been taken on. There have been campaigns against them, but there hasn’t been anything which really has confronted them and made them weaker. I think that’s one thing. I think the other thing is that we’ve got to refuse to allow the state to get in there and get information. And this is really, really important, particularly in the Violence Against Women and Girls sector. When we first set up women’s refuges in this country, we had decided we’d never give any information out. But then, of course, as the need for funding grew, you know, the state demanded information and compromises were made which I have written about in my book Dreams, Questions, Struggles – South Asian Women in Britain. This was followed by dependency on the state. Some feminists have argued that we have to work within the state and the state has a duty to provide safety, but unfortunately when an organisation becomes dependent on the state it is unable to effectively challenge the state’s actions. So I think that dependency is a very key point in terms of dealing with securitisation.
Yeah, just to really reiterate the point that Amrit makes about the international connections. One recent example is Palantir, the company that is connected with test and trace, but has also been contracted to gather data on British people from the NHS, including their race, gender, health conditions. This is a corporation that, in its early years, was used by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Very often the kind of technologies and tactics that are used by imperialist countries elsewhere are then transported back home to use against domestic populations. We see it with military techniques, with policing tactics, we also see it with surveillance, and how do we respond to it? I think, first of all, knowing where it’s happening. So as you mentioned, it’s literally everywhere! We have public sector agencies, or organisations that receive funding from the state that collaborate in sharing data about our communities with the state, around things such as immigration enforcement, or welfare access. So again I come back to the need for divesting, learning from the critical work that has come out of feminist movements for many decades: what are the compromises that come with the funding that you’re receiving?
There are remedies people can seek within the framework of the justice system. But I think very often, conversations around technology and data and surveillance become a thing that people feel is not relevant to them: like it’s a thing about computers and tech, and I don’t really get it, so I’m just going to switch off from it. I’ve done workshops with people in the past around data and privacy, especially in activist settings, and a thing I found really helpful is to talk about the ways that resistance practices have been enacted in communities for a long time. So when we’re talking about police stopping somebody on the street, doing a stop and search, how to be the person that intervenes but also supports that person in the moment or with notifying their loved ones and reminding the police that they’re being watched as well. It’s Simone Browne who talks about sousveillance, the act of us as surveilled communities returning the gaze. Very often these technologies and the way they’re discussed are brought into a frame of reference that isn’t really understandable to people anymore, but the ways that we resist these things have always been grounded within our communities.
Yes, I love it. And I think that moving between the local and the transnational is really important. Amrit, there is a wonderful complement here about always reminding us that the innovations often happen in the global south. And so keeping that in mind, but also thinking about what change you can make at the local level, I think is really important. Che, you discussed very briefly the abolition of the gender binary. What does that look like for you?
I think first it looks like thinking about how the gender binary, and also the sex binary, are rooted in colonialism and anti-blackness and regulation of the body. And it looks like a struggle that is still ongoing against anti-trans violence, and everything from the prison as an apparatus for the production and reproduction of heteronormativity, and the way that the prison regulates gender. The gender binary is part of the carceral continuum from the bathroom — where trans & non binary people are policed, attacked and arrested — to the prison. Trans liberation requires abolition and vice versa.
Excellent. And I think that’s such an important point, that the punitive logic literally is encoded within us. In terms of thinking about us performing for the gender binary and reinforcing the gender binary, I just think that’s so important.
I think it’s really interesting how now we’re seeing the spectre of the state taking our concerns that are rooted in gender or a gender binary, and then using them to expand prisons even further. I know in the UK there was at one point an idea of prisons for non-binary people and prisons specifically for trans people that would somehow cure the question of moving from one place to another. And I think what the prison does is provide a funnel for conformity to a rigid sex system, right? And what the abolition of that sex and gender system would do, I think, is help us not essentialise violence into specific bodies. I think this is what happens with a lot of sexual violence narratives, a lot of violence against women’s narratives: that violence gets rooted in men’s bodies, in masculinity, in a way that doesn’t provide us with any kind of space to think about expansive gender relations and transformative gender relations. But in a way that also, I think, is counter-productive when we’re thinking about how to end that violence, because what that essentialisation does is provide us with no route to think about what next. I think it also obscures the ways in which, even if our bodies are not legible as places where violence is essentialised, it obscures the ways that we can also be perpetrators of harm, and it makes the process of accountability a lot harder.
I think also, thinking about and abolishing gender and sex also means abolishing the idea that subordination and domination are rooted in our relations. As people have said before, that’s inherently tied to capitalism. I’ve said this before, that capitalism embeds in us ideas of hierarchy, exploitation, disposability, and I think that those are also logics that are central to the maintenance of a gender binary, in which one person’s body means domination and one person’s body means subordination. And in a world where all those things didn’t exist, it would become so much harder to think through the violence that is premised on those power differentials. That’s kind of a big thing, but that is something I think we have incredible power to think about, and that begins with thinking critically about gender, how you are situated in it, how you use it to make other people intelligible, and having this desire or this commitment to unintelligibility always.
Okay, folks, we got to wrap up. First, we’re going to end by saying thank you again to Sarah Shin, to Ru and to Silver Press for organising this event. But I do want to give each of you guys an opportunity to send us off on a positive note, to say, what are your hopes for the future in relation to abolition feminism?
One has to say that this is a very exciting moment. I know we’re not into moments, I know that this is maybe just part of the ongoing emergency and it’s reached this point, but it’s still something transformative. And I think we need to acknowledge that. And I think what we need to do from now is move forwards, with all our passion, as well as with care. And by care I mean care for each other, for everyone in the struggle, but also care in terms of looking where we’re going. Because when the state dismantles something, we can be sure that they’ll put something else in its place. And I think we’ve got to look out for that. But I think the very fact that all of us are here today, so many people, has been so inspiring, sharing everything together. I think that in itself is a very positive signal for the future.
I think I’m really energised by the momentum. I’ve been watching the statues come down and be thrown into the sea. And it makes me think of this Assata Shakur quote: ‘if I know anything at all, it’s that a wall is just a wall’. It can be dismantled. So I’m thinking about all the monuments to slavery, especially prisons, jails, borders, detention centres, global racial capitalism, coming down, and having a different reality. An abolitionist reality.
That’s beautiful. It brings a whole other idea of ‘get in the sea’.
People often scramble to articulate what is happening in moments like these, and how to best understand them. So I just want to remind everyone that communication isn’t just verbal. Obviously, the riots are a communication, pulling down statues is a communication, maybe sometimes more perfectly articulating the things that we need to know beyond what we can say with words. I want to say that we already are reimagining the realities of how we want to live, which is something for us to build upon. Another thing is, we have to ground the work that we’re doing to build a new world in material solidarity. So, look up the groups that are around you. There are a lot of us that are mobilising around things like prison expansion, against police violence, building community models for solidarity, and reimagining what justice looks like — many of these groups may even be on your doorstep. So you often don’t need to look really far, but these are groups that are usually under-resourced, and people are over-stretched and tired — I can speak to that personally. So look at what’s happening around you and where you can materially support. And obviously the importance of international solidarity, which we have been talking about in this discussion. For us to remember that there is a global struggle, and a global working class that we need to consistently articulate our solidarity with, and understand the things that are happening to us in the context of what is happening to others. And very finally, to reiterate something I said earlier: when we’re talking about abolition, talking about a new way of imagining and being means not only tearing down old things, it is about changing the relationships that we have not only with each other, but also with ourselves. And commit to looking after yourselves and others too.
Alright, Lola, bring us on home, honey, bring this all home.
I think what we’re seeing in this moment that we’re living in and that we continue to live in is a mass scale refusal. And I think of feminism as a refusal and a rebellion. And I guess what I hope for the future is a recognition that this is long-term work, right? And so we have to refuse to capitulate to people who will tell us at any given time that what we are imagining is impossible. And what excites me about this moment is seeing people just go from zero to 100. And what I hope for is sustenance in that understanding that abolition, an abolitionist logic, is a long-term project. It’s a lifelong commitment. And I think when we think about our politics in that way, new things become possible. I do think a lot about the political imagination, and I think about the imagination as an affective impetus that brings that which does not exist into being, and I think of this moment as that, a moment of possibility, and I hope more things become possible as we continue through it.
Absolutely fantastic. This has been so inspirational, so powerful. I think it’s really important to remember that we began by memorialising those we have lost, and I think we’ve hopefully done them a bit of justice and brought them a bit of care and peace as they’ve crossed over, because they are now our ancestors.
FURTHER READING/ORGANISATIONS REFERENCED
Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015)
Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe, Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (Verso, 2018)
Combahee River Collective, ‘The Combahee River Collective Statement’, April 1977. https://americanstudies.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Keyword%20Coalition_Readings.pdf
Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, eds, Futures of Black Radicalism (Verso, 2017)
Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (Serpent’s Tail, 2019)
Mariame Kaba, Call Your Girlfriend podcast https://www.callyourgirlfriend.com/episodes/2020/06/05/police-abolition-mariame-kaba
Audre Lorde, ‘Learning from the 60s’, in Your Silence Will Not Protect You (Silver Press, 2017)
Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Zed Books, 1983)
Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, eds, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2015)
Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism (Semiotexte, 2017)
Amrit Wilson, Dreams, Questions, Struggles – South Asian Women in Britain (Pluto Press, 2006)
Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007)
Abolitionist Futures https://abolitionistfutures.com/full-reading-list
The Audre Lorde Project https://alp.org/
Critical Resistance http://criticalresistance.org/
Silver Press www.silverpress.org